Collective Histories

20 years of work produced under the Catalyst Arts banner is showcased at the Golden Thread Gallery

As curator, Cherie Driver, notes in the book that accompanies this exhibition, the artworks on display are 'pieces, traces, fragments… I hope to plot one constellation that might begin to map the contribution Catalyst Arts has made'.

It’s both an enviable and unenviable task; as an exhibition there’s a lot going on here. As an archive of 20 years' worth of artistic endeavour, the task must have been Sisyphean. That the Catalyst Arts sign – the familiar open palm spurting an arc of blood – was designed by Turner Prize nominee David Shrigley might be some indication of quite how far the Catalyst diaspora has spread since its foundation.

What is gathered here at The Golden Thread in Belfast is a collection that not only deals with two decades of history, but deals with the consequences of that history, with vanished objects given a new lease of life, ex-contemporary commentary ushered into new contexts, finding new ways to describe old ideas.


This idea is perhaps exemplified by Keike Twisselmann’s 'Please keep the door shut as they tend to come in and slaughter us', here a re-imagination of the artist’s work. The original piece, presented to Catalyst in 1997, was a bloody human figure of the type more usually outlined in chalk during police procedurals and displayed on the street outside the gallery.

There the work seemed to be dealing explicitly with the continuing presence of conflict in Northern Ireland. Moved inside the gallery, the blood describing a human outline on muslin, the work seems to take on effective echoes of a more religious bent; the arms thrown open, halfway between crucifixion and embrace, echoes of the Turin shroud seem inescapable, if unintended.

With 'The Uncertainty of Things Outside the Self II', Mary McIntyre explores notions of waiting and transition. It is a lustrously rich print of cinema seats in battered velour, mould or cigarette burns rashing its care-worn comfort. The floorboards too are bare and scuffed, suggesting a lifetime of utility, of interaction with messy, busy human beings.

McIntyre’s 'Uncertainty I' presents a simple chair in a church, the St Anthony’s “B'read for the poor' sign giving away the location in a way in which the chair’s utility and the smart marble floor don’t. Without the sign, it could be an upmarket squash court.

'Imposter' by Lorraine Burrell presents what might be euphemistically referred to as Peter Griffins’ chin in a variety of hairy disguises, like ill-fitting Mr Merkins. They appear as the testicles knocked off statues by angry reformists and sent, incognito, into hiding.


Deidre McKennas’s 'The Lovers', listed as 'sculpture on a ploughman’s sandwich', is delightfully literal. A pair of opportunistic flies seize the moment on a cheese and pickle lunchtime perennial. Amy Brooks’ 'Please do forgive me forgetting. But I have been rather worried lately', meanwhile, is likewise pantry based, featuring an upturned honey jar dripping to the floor from a shelf, a delicate and imperishable stalagmite forming on the gallery floor.

Ursula Burke’s three prints, depicting her at City Hall, the Titanic Quarter and Inch Pier, Donegal, present the artifice of art, the camera stepping back to include the fraudster. The Titanic Quarter image in particular presents a bleak backdrop over the cement flats overgrown with weeds with an idealised painted foreground.

The cranes themselves are rendered in this Turneresque explosion of colour as fabricated pygmy giraffes, while a barefoot figure in a summer dress wanders across a carpet of sand, her suitcase just in shot, an anomalous gnome looking on with mild interest.

'Still Assembly' is Brian Connolly’s remade installation (originally from 2004). Stuffed ducks and pheasants nestle on a heart monitor. A shopping trolley full of wires wears an off the shoulder subbuteo table. Free-standing binoculars survey proceedings while, littered beneath it are the accoutrements of an imperial Victorian twitcher; all beaten brass and portmanteau boxes.

A portrait of Stormont hangs loftily above proceedings while we hear the sound of angry swarming bees. There’s a lot to take in, to make sense of, but the whole seems a visual essay on the stagnation of political mechanisms in Northern Ireland: the view from the hill, the Heath Robinson negotiations, the literal stirrings of unrest.

I feel that I’ve barely touched the surface here, as Driver must have done, trawling the sprawling Catalyst Arts archive, putting together her history, a non-completist, intensely subjective version of events. There are thousands of stories here, endless permutations, and each crying out for an audience to complete the circuit. Run along – there’s plenty to see here, but little time left to see it.

Catalyst Arts: Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art X runs in the Golden Thread Gallery until November 30.